Occupy Vancouver preoccupies city hall
// Dexter Fergie

As it is used to attain desired ends, violence is “neither beastly nor irrational,” says political theorist Hannah Arendt. Rather, violence is instrumental, and it has proven to be a capable tool within politics. This is what Clausewitz meant in his famous dictum that war is politics by other means: when you fail to persuade your political opponent with words, you can still persuade them with force. Today, a similar use of violence is taking place in the petty politics of our upcoming election.

Since Occupy Vancouver first began a month ago, NPA leader Suzanne Anton has urged Gregor Robertson to take action. On Oct. 26, she even proposed a basic three-step plan on her party’s website outlining how to remove the demonstrators (ironically, the plan was not unlike the one used in Oakland a couple weeks ago). She went so far as to say that she is “confident that the tent city can be ended peacefully.”

We should in no way take her seriously. She is merely baiting Robertson into a violent confrontation with the demonstrators, and into the political crisis that will follow.

The consequences of ending the Occupy Vancouver demonstration are obvious enough. We already have examples from the various American municipal governments that have attempted to evacuate their encampments. When the Oakland police enforced a notice to vacate, the large group of demonstrators rightfully challenged the authorities.

Since that incident, the movement has grown and has even executed a general strike, leaving Oakland’s mayor, Jean Quan, politically hapless. If similar violence were to erupt just days away from the night that Vancouverites choose their local government, Vision Vancouver would certainly not be rewarded for “allowing” a second riot.

It appears that this is the defect of the zerosum game played out in all our democratic institutions: crises always benefit the opposition.

Although OV still stands, Anton’s prodding has not been entirely fruitless. She – along with a handful of other officials – have succeeded in shifting the discourse from a discussion on the legal status of OV to how the City can end OV. It appears an agreement has already been reached: the demonstrators must go. Robertson told reporters just this past weekend that he has “directed the city manager to expedite the appropriate steps to end the encampment as soon as possible.”

Remarkably, the City has directed their focus to the practical problem of how to end OV, despite Vancouverites still remaining divided on the issue. An Ipsos Reid poll from Nov. 3 reports that, of those surveyed, 44 per cent support OV, while another 48 per cent oppose it. Despite these figures, 80 per cent of our democratically elected representatives on the City Council seek an end to the demonstrations.

The gap between the views of our City Councillors and their constituents is no doubt alarming, but there exists another, underlying, gap. In the discussion surrounding the demonstration, OV has taken on a meaning beyond the physical encampment, constituting a violent severance from reality. This simply makes room for exaggerated and speculative debate.

Language, by its very nature, is violent. As it reduces the designated thing to a single feature, divorcing it from reality, and inserting it into a field of meaning independent of it, language violently changes the way in which the designated thing appears.

“Reality in itself, in its stupid existence, is never intolerable: it is language, its symbolization, which makes it such,” explains the philosopher Slavoj Žižek. To use a crude racist example, what encourages someone to tighten their grip on their purse in the presence of a black man is not the immediate reality of the black man, but, rather, the image of the black man stereotypically represented in society as a “thief”, “hoodlum”, etc. Not only is there a distinction between language/ symbolization and reality, but it is also these representations that govern reality.

In the same light, the way in which OV has been represented and discussed at City Hall and in the media, one could easily conclude that their demonstration has affected the lives of, well, 48 per cent of Vancouver. But the immediate reality of the OV demonstrations – that physical encampment located downtown – is not what Suzanne Anton and half of Vancouver are opposed to. Rather, they are opposed to the OV that has been represented by City Hall and the media.

To prove this, let us look at the immediate effects of OV on Vancouver in relation to what has been said. Thus far, Vancouverites have been inconvenienced only slightly. Aside from occasional disruptions of traffic due to marches, the re-routing of the Rogers Santa Claus Parade, and, of course, the appropriation of a public space, the interruption for Vancouverites has been minimal. In fact, all three of these examples can be perceived as positive developments for the movement.

But OV, as it has been represented, has been blamed for far more inconveniences than rerouting traffic. Within two weeks of the occupation, the Province newspaper, Suzanne Anton, and the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association had claimed that the demonstration had become rat-infested, posing a threat to local businesses. Although Vancouver Coastal Health responded immediately saying that OV poses “no health concerns,” the issue of rats has already become a fixture in the debate.

The myth that the occupation is costing the public is unfounded. Yes, during the first week, an extra $440,000 was incurred by the VPD and RCMP for overtime and additional units after their initial misreading of the occupation as potentially violent. But since then, the City reports, that there have been “no incremental costs resulting from the protests.”

This violent separation between the occupation’s representation and its reality pose a threat to the movement itself. If City Hall does not readjust their clouded gaze on the occupation, they may provoke the peaceful demonstrators into violence. And this time, Gregor Robertson and his Councillors will have no one to blame but themselves.

//Dexter Fergie, columnist
//Illustration by Stefan Tosheff

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